Things That Go Bump!- ‘writing about what haunts us’

A recent Opinionator article by Peter Orner in the NY Times, titled “Writing About What Haunts Us”, stuck a commemorative thorn in my side. His piece addresses guilt as a motivation for writing fiction in general, and a particular incident in his young life that haunted him so deeply he had to turn to non-fiction to tell it. The event concerned the theft of his father’s favorite gloves; an incident he thought of all his life and tried to write about. The aforementioned splinter of recognition lodged under my skin as I started reading the article because I’d had a similar experience in my childhood, but it never became a specter threatening me until I exorcized it writing a memoir about my grandmother.

I said similar, but there were many variances in our experiences with these ghosts, as he was aware of his and struggled with it all his life, but I had shooed mine away so many years ago I didn’t remember it until the memoir brought it back. If I hadn’t started writing again and it hadn’t been a memoir, I doubt that particular ghost would ever have seen the light of day. Similarly, our original guilt was over the theft of something that had particular meaning (not necessarily worldly value) to people we loved (his father, my grandmother, respectively). Also similar was our finding that it took a stark recounting of the facts in print to deal with it. Only memoir would do. But in many ways, I was so much luckier than he because my grandmother was aware of the theft. She made her knowledge manifest and then helped me understand what I’d done and how similar choices would affect me in the future. Mr. Orner had to live with his secret most of his adult life, so the secret itself became an accessory to the crime.

After I finished thinking over the commonality of experience and especially childhood memories, thanks to Mr. Orner, I had another look at several of the key points addressed in his essay. His first was that he was a professional in the business of ‘untruth’ since he’s a fiction writer. I had trouble with that right from the get-go since I know there to be as much, or possibly more truth in fiction than in memoir. I don’t believe that the ‘truth’ is a “better if smaller story”, as he stated. Where we do agree is in the necessity to tell the story as memoir if the heart of the author needs to confess. Neither an omniscient narrator nor a third party coming between the loved one and perpetrator of the ‘crime’ could offer the absolution necessary. Only we can do that for ourselves.


 Mr. Orner described his father so we could see him as he did as a child, and as he does today; so we could know the victim too. He then spent the rest of the essay searching for his own motivation in the theft, and ended with the most skillful finale of all- a question. He asked if he’d come to the right conclusion, leaving it up to the reader by unspoken proxy to present an alternative if not. The point he made of his search for motivation was so personal it made me go back to reconstruct my own reason for my lie to my grandmother. Clearly it had been a means to an end, but even the end wasn’t my true motivation, just as his desire for his father’s gloves wasn’t his.

Still, there was something else that seemed more important to me, as a writer, about the conclusions in that essay. They weren’t meant to be the points of focus, but for me, they were. He stated that guilt was his motivation for writing fiction in the first place and that truth “derails fiction”. I know it’s what the grown-up world would have us believe, but children instinctively know otherwise before life works its mischief. I found a quote from a French author of the 19th century that tells a truth I’ve come to accept again, now that I’m older and wiser. “…imagination is stronger than knowledge”; myth…more potent than history; dreams more powerful than facts”. Léon Bloy is its creator, and like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, he knew something very important that children understand right from the start; that stories help us make sense of our world.

Was that what my grandmother kept teaching me over and over again? Is that why I was able to put my story about the theft of her money away where it couldn’t haunt me even before I ever put it down on a page? Are myths the way we keep things from going bump in the night? If so, I’m glad I’ve become a story-teller. There are fewer things that have the power to haunt me.

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